By: Patty Joyce
I have adopted the song Alabaster Box, written by Janice Sjostrand and sung by CeCe Winans, as part of my testimony. If you have heard it, you will recall that it speaks of a woman whose tears washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. Granted, it would take a lifetime for my hair to grow that long, but the point of the song is not her hair, but her heart. Three of the Gospels are similar, but not identical, with passages mentioning an alabaster box of ointment. Let’s look at them, noticing that John 12:1-7 does not reference an alabaster box, but a pint of pure nard.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner. Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you. “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Luke 7:36-48 NIV
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Matthew 26:6-13 NIV
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
John 12:1-7 NIV
In these Scriptures, we find three different types of women showing their love, respect, and humility toward Jesus by anointing, worshiping, and serving with elaborate substances. In Luke’s story, a sinful woman entered uninvited into a pharisee’s home, where her tears washed His feet, her hair dried them, she kissed them repeatedly, and poured perfume on them.
The perfume was in a box of alabaster—a strong common stone found in Israel. It resembles white marble and is used to carry ointments, oils, and perfumes to keep them pure and unspoiled. The boxes were often sealed with wax to prevent the perfume from escaping until the time of its use.
Matthew speaks of another woman who also had an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on His head as He reclined at the table. The disciples were again indignant saying it was a waste of money that could be given to the poor. Jesus came to her aid saying that she has done a beautiful thing in anointing Him for His burial, and the poor will always be with them, but He won’t. He also told them that wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. And, to this day, we are the recipients of this beautiful story.
The third instance appears in John 12:1-7. While visiting the home of Lazarus, Mary took a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume, and poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Again, the disciples, including Judas Iscariot, objected because the money could be given to the poor. Jesus reminded them that the poor will remain, but He would not always be with them.
The cost of the ointment was worth about 300 denarii, about $54,509 in U.S. dollars. The disciples were not only shocked by the cost of the ointment she was using, but by the amount she was using.
What is nard? In Biblical times, Spikenard, or “nard,” was the head or spike of an East Indian plant. It was not only a very costly perfume, but was also used as a medicine. The stems of the plant, called rhizomes, are crushed and distilled into an essential oil that has an intense aroma and amber color. It has a heavy, sweet, woody, and spicy smell, which is said to resemble the smell of moss. The oil blends well with essential oils of frankincense, geranium, patchouli, lavender, vetiver, and myrrh.
Although we are not told how the women purchased their alabaster boxes and/or the nard, we know these items were very costly and were lavished on Jesus by those who were not considered among the rich.
These Scriptures really hit home for me. I was that sinful woman—discreet, but nonetheless sinful. What tangible item did I have to give Him when He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Do you want to come with Me?” None! Why would He say my sins are forgiven when I didn’t even ask for forgiveness? I am still in awe of that moment forty-plus years ago when I said, “Yes, I want to go with You,” not knowing what to expect or what to do, but knowing it was finally time.
My walk with Jesus has not always been a mountain-top experience. There have been several valley instances of sin, guilt, questioning, sorrow, distance, silence, and compromise. And yet, when I come to my senses and confess, He always says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Today, I ask myself, what is in my alabaster box? What more can I give Him? What does He expect of me all these years later? Am I up to the future tasks He will ask of me? Will He overlook the sour scent that sometimes escapes from my alabaster heart? There are times I’ve put Jesus on a shelf and said, “Ok, Lord. I’ll be there as soon as I can…I’ll meet you first thing in the morning…Give me a moment to put the clothes in the dryer,” and other inexcusable reasons. And so, I end up missing His presence and sharing my most intimate thoughts with him (although He already knows them), and feeling a deep emotional and physical void that hurts.
I know that my alabaster box is only full of the oil of joy, intimacy, praise, repentance, and thanksgiving when I sit at His feet and pour myself out like a fragrant perfume pleasing to Him and hear His words, “Your sins are forgiven.”